Franklin and the Critics

Franklin's Autobiography has been praised as the quintessential document of the American Enlightenment:

Its simplicity, clarity, and objectivity mirrors the methods of Bacon and Newton in prose. Franklin's curiosity about the motives and circumstances of his life was as natural as his interest in lightning and street cleaning.

  • passion for reason and freedom
  • aversion to religious hocus-pocus as the key to a good life
  • preoccupation with the world evident to the senses
  • profound faith in common sense solutions to social problems

Utilitarian value as the measure of artistic excellence, not emotional power or psychological depth (Romanticism)

An exercise in Locke's epistemology: we create our characters through experience. Our characters are not determined at birth by original sin or racial/cultural characteristics. rather, we have the power to invent ourselves. We shape our characters by learning from our mistakes, by re-writing or revising ourselves.

Franklin's Autobiography has been praised as the quintessential document of the American Revolution:

  • American society could be freed from religious mysticism, aristocratic hierarchies, and tyrannical kings. A level playing field for every citizen could be made.
  • Franklin sought to create a new society. In America, he argued, all those who work hard, write effectively, plan effectively, conciliate differences, and conduct public affairs with a view to the general good will achieve success.
  • His reading audience was the rising bourgeoisie, merchants, tradesmen and mechanics, not scholars or intellectuals. He wrote for the middle class of Boston and Philadelphia. His message was that those readers who cultivated personal industry, sobriety, economy, and useful knowledge could not fail.

Woodrow Wilson, Introduction to Franklin's Autobiography (1902)

"The Autobiography is letters in business garb, literature with its apron on, addressing itself to the task, which in this country is every man's, of setting free the processes of growth and giving them facility and speed and efficiency." (vi)

Since its publication, Franklin's Autobiography has become a staple of secondary school curricula. American businessmen like banker Thomas Mellon, editor Horace Greeley, and future politician Abraham Lincoln, all cited the lessons of the Autobiography as key influences in their lives. Particularly in the period after the Civil War, the cult of the self-made man flourished, and Franklin achieved secular canonization. 

Even so, the Autobiography has also been vigorously criticized ever since its publication.

Nathaniel Hawthorne:

"His proverbs are all about getting money or saving it."

Herman Melville:

"Franklin is everything but a poet. His impudent platitudes, obtrusive advice, and mock friendliness demonstrate that he is possessed only of a book-keeper's mind."

Mark Twain, The Late Benjamin Franklin (1870)

"Franklin possesses an animosity towards boys, a malevolence which is without parallel in history, he would work all day and then sit up nights and let on to be studying algebra by the light of a smoldering fire, so that all the other boys might have to do that also or else have Benjamin Franklin held up to them. Not satisfied with these proceedings, he had a fashion of living wholly on bread and water, and studying astronomy at meal time- a thing which has brought affliction to millions of boys since, whose fathers had read Franklin's pernicious biography."

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923)

"The soul of man is a dark vast forest, with wild life in it. Think of Benjamin fencing it off!... He made himself a list of virtues which he trotted inside like a nag in a paddock...Middle-sized, sturdy, snuff-colored Dr. Franklin... I do not like him... I just utter a long loud curse against Benjamin and the American corral."

Charles Angoft, a mid-1950's American Critic:

"Franklin was probably a colossal misfortune to the United States, for, despite his good fellowship and occasional good sense, Franklin represented the least praiseworthy qualities of the inhabitants of the New World: miserliness, fanatical practicality, and lack of interest in what we usually know as spiritual things... He made a religion of Babbitry and by his tremendous success with it he grafted it upon the American people so well that the national genius is still suffering from it."